(This is based on a couple of conversations I had with Julian Sanchez, and they’re more his thoughts than mine. I’m just trying to clarify my own thinking by writing about it).
Many libertarians base their political philosophy on the principle of self-ownership. The principle of self ownership, according to most libertarians, leads to a Nozickian minimal state in which the government’s role is constrained to the protection of rights to liberty and property, the enforcement of contracts, and judicial dispute resolution.
The ultimate goal for these libertarians is to transform our society into a Nozickian “libertopia”. This sort of view is easily applied to particular public policy questions. Would policy x move us closer to libertopia? Would the overall effect of policy x be to reduce or increase state coercion? The answer to these questions, rather than the complex economic analysis often involved in weighing public policy options, determines which policy libertarianism recommends.
But libertarians don’t (or shouldn’t) just care about the abstract goal of inching toward libertopia. They also (should) care about what overall effect a policy has on real world human freedom. The problem is that focusing exclusively on reaching libertopia can sometimes lead one to support policies that are actually harmful to the cause of promoting freedom. A good example of this is libertarian opposition to the section of the civil rights act that prohibits some privately owned businesses (such as restaurants) from racially segregating their patrons (see Julian Sanchez’s Newsweek piece on this in the wake of the Rand Paul controversy).
A challenge for libertarians is to come up with some basis for favoring one policy over another when applying libertopia doesn’t work (also, for what kinds of public policy issues is libertopian analysis not a good option?). More on this soon.